In recent years, a concerted assault has been waged by neoconservative intellectuals--including William J. Bennett (as President Reagan's secretary of education), Allan Bloom, Accuracy in Academia, the National Assn. of Scholars, and New Criterion magazine--against those current professors in the humanities and social sciences whose political attitudes were formed in the protest movements of the '60s.
"Tenured Radicals" by Roger Kimball, managing editor of New Criterion, repeats the standard neocon refrain that academic leftists--Marxists, professors of women's, ethnic and popular culture studies--are guilty of politicizing education to the exclusion of "the ideals of objectivity and the disinterested pursuit of knowledge." Indeed, in Kimball's view, "Their object is nothing less than the destruction of the values, methods and goals of traditional humanistic study."
It may be true, as Kimball charges, that some deconstructionists and other post-structuralist theorists deny any foundation for objective knowledge and any possibility of impartial judgment. Most Politics and Higher Education leftists, however, reject such extreme theories; they only assert that claims of intellectual impartiality frequently mask partiality to conservative politics.
Poor Kimball's own defense of impartiality seems almost designed to prove the leftist case--from his lurid title and tone to his blind hatred of apparently anyone and everyone on the left, to his failure ever to raise the question of possible biases in his own views and those of his sources, who are uniformly conservative allies.
His acknowledgments include the John M. Olin Foundation and the Institute for Educational Affairs "for their generous help in the earlier stages of this project." Yet Kimball does not address the issue of whether sponsorship by such corporate-front foundations might compromise his own objectivity and disinterestedness, or that of all of the other academic and journalistic enterprises (including New Criterion) funded by conservative special interests.
How does Kimball's text itself advance "the values, methods and goals of traditional humanistic study"? Consider the following points in his first four pages of preface alone.
He asserts that during the dispute in 1988 over revision of Stanford's Western Culture course, "Jesse Jackson and some 500 students marched chanting, 'Hey hey, ho ho, Western Culture's got to go.' " Kimball does not say whether he was there or who his sources were. Some witnesses say Jackson tried to dissuade the black students from this chant, urging them instead to emphasize minority contributions to Western culture. Did Kimball bother to verify which account was right?
He quotes Houston Baker, a professor of black studies at the University of Pennsylvania, as saying that choosing between Pearl Buck and Virginia Woolf is "no different from choosing between a hoagy and a pizza. . . . I am one whose career is dedicated to the day when we have a disappearance of those standards.' " Kimball again accepts at face value his source for this quote, an article by Joseph Berger in the New York Times. As it happens, Baker has denied saying anything of the kind, and Berger has admitted putting words in Baker's mouth.
Yet, the infamous Baker quote has been reprinted as evidence of leftist folly by conservative journalists in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, New York Times Magazine and National Review--without any questioning of its authenticity. In National Review, Jeffrey Hart, a tenured conservative at Dartmouth, gleefully cited the quote from the book "Profscam" by Charles Sykes--who took it from Berger, again without verifying it. In the same review, Hart lauded Sykes for his exposures of the academic "citation racket" (in which scholars cite each other's citations as gospel, rather than doing their own research); Kimball similarly overlooked this Sykescam in uncritically praising "Profscam" in the New York Times Book Review.
Kimball attacks Duke University for its high-salaried "campaign to arm its humanities departments with the likes of the Marxist literary critic Fredric Jameson (and his wife, also a Marxist professor) . . . Stanley Fish (and his pedagogically like-minded wife)." Kimball sees no need even to name the wives in question--Susan Willis and Jane Tompkins--let alone to consider their independent academic qualifications. Would Kimball write about "the Bush Administration's campaign to arm the executive branch with the likes of Richard Cheney and his politically like-minded wife" (NEH chairwoman Lynne Cheney)? But, hey, sexism is a delusion of hysterical feminists, right, Kimball?
Still in his preface, Kimball quotes as evidence of radical extremism the first page of Jameson's "The Political Unconscious" where Jameson asserts that the political perspective is " 'the absolute horizon of all reading and all interpretation.' " Surely the methods of humanistic study championed by Kimball include judging any position not on its premise but on the arguments supporting it. Yet Kimball subsequently makes no effort to summarize--or even indicate that he has read--Jameson's 300 pages of support for his thesis.
And Kimball pulls the same trick on virtually all the radicals he wields his hatchet against throughout this book, seizing on a few extreme-sounding phrases out of context while giving few signs that he has read their works fully or fair-mindedly. Typically, he says about one of his targets: "We may pass over the details of his exposition." Are these the high critical standards conservatives always boast they are defending against the leftist barbarians?
Kimball never acknowledges that many academic leftists are committed to upholding humanistic tradition as much as--or more than--conservatives. (Marx and other leftists, after all, are included even in Bennett's, Cheney's and E. D. Hirsch's core curriculum.)
Many leftists in fact share Kimball's distaste for deconstructionists like Paul de Man (whose posthumous exposure as a Nazi collaborator confirmed leftists' belief that deconstruction was a conservative movement), for academic jargon, for make-work research (at least as common in mainstream scholarship as among leftists) and for verbal gamesmanship as practiced by the likes of Stanley Fish (a self-proclaimed conservative, by the way, unabashedly pursuing a prosperous career, in the manner neocons extol, in the private sector).
Indeed, it seems likely that Kimball's and other neocons' fixation on extremists--many of whom aren't even leftists--is a stratagem to distract attention from the numerous moderate leftists who cannot be so glibly dismissed. Among the latter, unmentioned by Kimball, is Page Smith, currently a retired and (as he describes himself) "somewhat bemused observer of the academic scene," following a distinguished career as history professor at UCLA and founding provost of the anti-traditional University of California at Santa Cruz.
Smith's "Killing the Spirit" places the current problems of academia in the historical context established in his eight-volume "A People's History of the United States." His sympathies lie less with intellectual Marxism than with the American populist and liberal Christian traditions, which he argues were a strong progressive force in American higher education through the 19th Century before being squeezed out by business interests, the cult of science and specialized scholarship.
Unlike Kimball, Smith rejects the fetish of scholarly objectivity; his lament for the death of the humanistic spirit is avowedly personal. However, "Killing the Spirit" is more impartial than "Tenured Radicals"--or Allan Bloom's almost equally one-sided "The Closing of the American Mind"--in scope and balanced judgment.
Thus Smith, like Kimball and Bloom, criticizes the excesses of recent academic advocates of Marxism, women's and ethnic studies, and canon revision, but he places them far down on his list of the evils besetting the modern university. That list is led by "the flight from teaching, the meretriciousness of most academic research, the disintegration of the disciplines, the alliance of the universities with the Department of Defense, the National Aeronautics and Space Agency, etc., and, more recently, with biotechnology and communications corporations, and, last but not least, the corruptions incident to 'big-time' collegiate sports."
Smith traces these present ills to their origins in the history of American universities, which he shows were never the Eden imagined by Kimball and the neocons but, from the beginning, agencies of upper-class domination.
A world of significance for current disputes is captured in a story Smith tells about the University of Chicago at the turn of the century. A reformist economics professor, Harold Bemis, was criticizing interests represented by patrons such as John D. Rockefeller and executives of the railroad trust. His department head wrote to the university president that Bemis was " 'making very hard the establishment of a great railroad interest in the University . . . I do not see how we can escape except by letting the public know that he goes (is fired) because we do not regard him as up to the standard of the University in ability and scientific methods.' "
Smith comments, "Here 'scientific' obviously meant staying out of trouble by not discussing controversial political issues. . . . On the other hand, those who opposed reform were commonly applauded for their 'objectivity.' "
So Smith understands, as Kimball does not, that the excesses of the current left have been provoked by justifiable frustration over past and present rightist prejudices in the university. He also understands a key point of protest movements from the '60s to the present: that those, like Kimball and the neocons, who silently countenance the evils of the status quo are on shabby moral ground in selectively denouncing the faults of those opposing those evils.
The Trouble With 'World Civilization'
I would like to suggest some obvious reasons for the failure of the recurrent efforts to find a secure and enduring place for Western or, better, World Civilization courses in the university. First and foremost, the universities' collective heart is not in the enterprise. To teach such a course in lectures in a style that will captivate and hold the attention of restless and inattentive young people with a thousand more pressing things on their minds requires great gifts of intellect and personality--such qualities as passion, conviction, wide knowledge, and genuine cultivation, as well as a gift for explicating and integrating complex and unfamiliar ideas and generalizing major themes. These qualities are, needless to say, in short supply in the university. The great majority of the faculty are neither interested in nor capable of organizing and teaching such a course. In addition to needing a brilliant and learned (and mature) lecturer, it, by common consent, requires numerous small sections in which the "great works" that are required reading for the course can be discussed in some detail, the inevitable confusions cleared up and questions answered.
Who does this essential part of the "core" program? Why, teaching assistants, of course. Young men and women at the beginning of their careers, most of them the products of highly specialized "pre-graduate" programs, who, however bright and committed to teaching, simply do not have the background and experience to handle such difficult (and in a real sense alien) material effectively. Nonetheless, whatever good is gotten out of such "core" programs by the students is usually due to the dedicated efforts of those at the bottom of the academic pile.
What message do you think students get from perfunctory lectures (often by specialists drawn from different disciplines--the classics professor's lectures on the Greeks, the professor of medieval history on the Middle Ages, etc.) and sections taught by the low men and women on the totem pole? They get the message that this is a chore imposed on them for their own good by a professoriate that is unwilling to make a serious and sustained commitment to it. Take this. It is Western Civilization. It is good for you, even if it tastes bitter. You can't claim to be an educated person unless you know the following:
But do you, professor? Do you really and genuinely know these things that you say are good for us? Are you truly committed? Do you read Virgil and Dante? Or did you once? Do you love the Renaissance artists, poets, and philosophers? Do you read John Calvin's "Institutes of the Christian Religion" and recall the theses Martin Luther nailed to the church door in Wittenberg?
The hearts of the professors are undeniably elsewhere, in their studies and laboratories, in their "disciplines." Not only are they not equipped to teach what they expect students to learn, but they are patronizing of their colleagues who make a genuine effort to perform this almost impossible mission. And sometimes deny them tenure because, in undertaking the heroic task of trying to make vivid and relevant 2,000 years or more of history, they scant the research/publication requirement.
Weighted in the scales against specialized, "scientific" studies where the academic payoffs lie, the promotions, the call to better jobs at more prestigious institutions, Western Civilization in all its curricular forms and permutation is no more than a feather? Who, one may legitimately ask, is diddling whom?
--From "Killing the Spirit: Higher Education in America"